The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Hall of Photography
One of the Smithsonian's activities that the Smithsonian Institution Archives strives to document is the exhibitions put on by its museums, libraries, and archives. To this end we collect such records as exhibition proposals, exhibition committee meetings minutes, curatorial correspondence, installation images, contracts, checklists, lender files, facilities reports, exhibition scripts, exhibition catalogs, budget records, floor plans, educational materials, visitor comments, press reviews, newspaper clippings, press releases, brochures, posters, and original loan agreements.
These records document the conception, research, and execution of exhibitions and are invaluable to researchers studying museums and the social and historical contexts of those exhibitions. Once an exhibition is closed, these records are what remain. Needless to say, once it is taken down, a great deal of the look and feel of an exhibition is lost. True, often times the Archives will have installation photographs or video used in an exhibition, but the flavor of the exhibition can be a little lacking.
With this in mind, it is to our great fortune that we were contacted last fall by Roberta Allen, the widow of Neil Allen, whose production company helped create the slide installations in the National Museum of History and Technology's (now the National Museum of American History) Hall of Photography. The boxes of materials include slides, audio recordings, and motion picture film used in the exhibition. Additionally there are research notes about the images used, a copy of the contract that Allen had with the Smithsonian, and some correspondence. The addition of these materials to our collections enhances the materials we already have and helps present a more robust rendering of the exhibition for researchers.
Indeed, when it opened in 1973, the Hall of Photography presented the history of photography using some of the most up-to-date exhibition techniques of the time. There were some participatory portions within the exhibition, such as "Lingering Shadows" which allowed visitors to create silhouettes on a glass-topped counter containing a phosphor that glowed when struck by the flash above it. There were wax mannequins set up in historical scenes, including the van of Roger Fenton equipped for photographing the Crimean War and a reconstructed Eastman Kodak darkroom showing two workers making contact prints. Visitors could even take home a little something from the exhibit itself by having tintypes taken at an early photographic studio, or having their photograph taken in a coin-operated photo booth.
Allen created seven slide shows for the Hall. Four of the slide shows were three-screen projection setups covering the subjects of science, news, frontier, and family photography. Each show used a careful selection of images. For example, the news show contained images from the Crimean War by Fenton, Mathew Brady's images from the Civil War, Arnold Genthe's San Francisco earthquake shots, as well as images from World War I and II. To compliment the images there was music and commentary about the images. The remaining three slide shows were projected on single screens and cover the subjects of color, applications, and amateurs.
Alas, I was not able to see the Hall of Photography since it closed in 1992 and dismantled for renovations. However, I (and hopefully others after me) am able to get glimpse of what the exhibition was like through the collections of Neil Allen now housed at the Archives.